Van Andel Institute Graduate School empowered alumnus Casey Droscha to find his scientific specialty

Casey Droscha has never met a challenge he couldn’t overcome.

Born and raised on a small dairy farm in Michigan, his childhood days started and ended with raising calves, milking cows and other farm chores came to shape a lifelong determination to suceed.

Later, as a freshman at Central Michigan University (CMU), he walked onto the football team, earning a full scholarship by his sophomore year and eventually being selected as team captain in his senior season

Casey Droscha, Ph.D.

He would go on to transform his family’s annual tradition of making maple syrup from a seasonal hobby to full-fledged business with a national customer base.

So when he began considering graduate programs, he knew he wanted something different – something that would take him far out of his comfort zone.

“I wanted an experience that was going to transform me,” Droscha said. “I didn’t want to be a student anymore. I wanted to be a scientist.”

He learned of Van Andel Institute Graduate School from a CMU professor and mentor, who had completed her postdoctoral work in one of the Institute’s labs. In all, he applied to 15 programs but deep down, he knew the Graduate School was where he wanted to be.

“I’ve always been involved with way more than academics and have never been a traditional student,” he said. “I didn’t want to be churned through a machine. When I was looking for programs, Van Andel Institute Graduate School was the only one that wasn’t focused on a siloed approach.”

When he received his offer to join the Graduate School, he accepted almost immediately. After completing his initial coursework, he joined the lab of Dr. Bart Williams, director of VAI’s Center for Cancer and Cell Biology and an internationally recognized expert in bone biology and Wnt signaling.

Droscha immediately threw himself into his research and selected a dissertation project that focused on the role of HRPT2, a gene that, when deactivated, predisposes people to problems like endocrine abnormalities and painful, debilitating jawbone tumors. This work would grow over the years to encompass the effect of ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, on cell identity and fate in specialized bone cells called osteoblasts. His work also helped pilot CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing at the Institute, soon after its public debut in 2014.

While at the Graduate School, he had the opportunity to present his research at conferences across the U.S. and even attend a symposium on epigenetics and nutrition in Camerino, Italy. By the time he successfully defended his dissertation in 2016, it was clear that he had overcome yet another challenge.

“The greatest part of getting my Ph.D. was accomplishing my goal of becoming a scientist,” he said. “I felt like an expert who could talk with any other expert with competence and confidence.”

Now as associate director of research and development for CentralStar, an agricultural cooperative, he directs and oversees the development of diagnostic and genetic-based tests,  reproductive tools and animal health products. Each day, Droscha applies the extensive molecular biology, genomics and epigenetics skills he fostered at the Graduate School to develop novel technologies that enhance dairy herd health.

As part of his role at CentralStar, he also serves as an adjunct graduate faculty member at Michigan State University, where he advises graduate and veterinary students through independent and collaborative U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded research projects. He credits Van Andel Institute Graduate School with equipping him with the real-world skills required for this type of mentorship, such as acquiring grant funding, establishing inter-institutional collaborations and running a productive research laboratory.

“I had two big takeaways from the program. First, my experience at the Graduate School taught me a scientific approach that addresses a need or gap in knowledge that isn’t necessarily confined by a specific discipline but instead taught me how to focus on developing a testable and relevant hypothesis,” Droscha said. “Second, I learned the grantsmanship of science, which is critical to ensuring your work is properly funded. It’s an invaluable skill.”

For those considering graduate school, his advice is simple.

“Prepare to be challenged,” Droscha said. “Prepare to drink from the firehose and embrace it because personal transformation occurs through overcoming adversity.”